Kathy Burke’s Lady Windermere’s Fan needs more edge to its gooey marshmallow centre

Any sense of danger under the frills and frocks has been lost in this production.

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My favourite story about Kathy Burke comes from the 1990s, when she responded to Helena Bonham Carter’s complaint that she was “punished” by casting directors for not being “trendily working class” with an open letter to Time Out. “As a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes,” wrote Burke, “I would like to say to Helena Bonham Carter (wholly pledged member of the very pretty upper-middle classes): shut up you stupid c***.”

It was quite a surprise, then, to learn that Burke had signed up to direct one of four plays in a West End season devoted to Oscar Wilde, supervised by the former artistic director of the Globe, Dominic Dromgoole. His new company, Classic Spring, aims “to celebrate the groundbreaking work of proscenium playwrights in the architecture they wrote for”. (George Bernard Shaw is threatened in future years.) 

What attracted Burke, scourge of posh people, to the lace-gloved aphorisms of Wilde? This production of Lady Windermere’s Fan will leave you none the wiser. It’s staged in full period dress, on a pastel-coloured set, with the comedian Kevin Bishop kitted out with a moustache you could hide a dormouse in, Jennifer Saunders wearing a bonnet grand enough to have its own concierge, and one of the minor characters in a corset so tight-laced it looked as if she was being attacked by her own breasts. All right, it might have been madness to expect a kind of Wilde/Nil by Mouth mash-up, but I was hoping for a little bit of edge. This play was all gooey marshmallow centre.

Mostly, that’s the fault of the script. Wilde is a playwright who excels at brittle surfaces, and at the start the characters exchange volleys of witticisms with the ease of pre-injury Andy Murray. The understanding is that the barbs might be cruel, but all the blows glance off. This is just a game.

We begin with Lady Windermere (Grace Molony) receiving Lord Darlington and his dormouse moustache in her drawing room, and entirely missing his suggestions that her husband might be spending a little too much time (and money) on another woman. It is left to Jennifer Saunders’s Duchess of Berwick to make the issue explicit: Lord Windermere keeps calling on a mysterious femme fatale called Mrs Erlynne (Samantha Spiro), who has no family and no obvious means of support.

Saunders is magnificent: her grande dame is part-Margaret Thatcher, part-Alison Steadman’s Mrs Bennet, her voice drawling round the lower octaves and her mannerisms perfectly pitched. Every moment she is on stage the play comes alive. Wilde does baritone matrons better than anyone else, and the comic scenes nip along with commendable rhythm. The actors nobly, and correctly, resist appending a knowing wink to the lines that have a familiarity problem (the relationship between the gutter and the stars, the irresistibility of temptation, etc), thereby saving the audience from a bad case of Archness Poisoning.

The problem comes when it’s time for the Serious Bit. Convinced that her husband is sleeping with Mrs Erlynne, Lady Windermere decides to leave him for Lord Darlington. Only it turns out – spoiler alert, but come on, it’s been a century, let it go – that Mrs Erlynne is her mother and has come to England to be reunited with her daughter.

So Mum reads Lady Windermere’s goodbye note to her husband, is horrified that history is repeating itself – although the circumstances of her own walkout are never fully explained – and sets off chez Darlington to talk her out of her folly. As the women are talking, the men all arrive at his lordship’s house, so Lady Windermere and Mrs Erlynne hide (the former dropping her fan in the process) and the audience thinks: oh good, a bit of farce. Lovely. I hope someone’s trousers accidentally fall down.

Unfortunately, none of that transpires, just a grinding sequence in which the fan is found, Mrs E reveals herself and takes the rap, and then arrives at the Windermeres’ house the next day for a bollocking by Lord W about what a fallen woman she is. She therefore doesn’t reveal her identity to her daughter, although she does drop some rather heavy hints, leading you to think that Lady W might not be the quickest on the uptake. (Oh, was your mother’s name Margaret? What a coincidence! SO IS MINE.)

The problem is that we’re supposed to buy Mrs Erlynne’s maternal concern, but the characters have all the emotional depth of a teaspoon. The night before, Lady Windermere runs off to Lord Darlington without a word of regret about leaving her eight-month-old child, or even any suggestion she might say goodbye. The hard glitter of the characters – which allows us to laugh at the cruel jokes without compunction – also robs them of any psychological realism.

Still, who comes to see an Oscar Wilde play for an in-depth exploration of the human spirit? What has been lost here, though, is any sense of danger under the frills and frocks – strange, when there are jokes about wife-beating and suicide. If only the production could have tempered its sweetness with a little more acid. 

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” runs until 7 April at Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2​

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power